Employing Algae to Make Hydrogen

In order to induce hydrogen production in the algae, cells must be placed in an environment without oxygen but with access to light.

Published: 14-Nov-2007

For several decades, scientists have known that certain species of algae can produce hydrogen in anaerobic conditions. More recently, researchers have been trying to take advantage of this ability to produce hydrogen that could be used by fuel cells to generate electricity—without expensive processes like electrolysis required for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Now, a team of biologists including Raymond Surzycki and Jean-David Rochaix from the University of Geneva, and Laurent Cournac and Gilles Peltier, both from the Atomic Energy Commission, the National Center for Scientific Research, and the Mediterranean University, have demonstrated a new method for hydrogen production by algae. In a recent issue of PNAS, the team presented a method using copper to block oxygen generation in the cells of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii that could lead to a consistent cycle of hydrogen production.

In order to induce hydrogen production in the algae, cells must be placed in an environment without oxygen but with access to light. To completely deplete the algae’s oxygen supply, the researchers turned off part of a chloroplast gene required for oxygen evolution by adding copper to the cells in an enclosed chamber. Specifically, the addition of copper turned off the Cyc6 promoter, which drives the Nac2 gene, which is required for photosystem II (PSII) synthesis. PSII generates oxygen.

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